INTERVIEW WITH SOUTHERN WRITER RON YATES
ON SOUTHERN FICTION—HERE’s A RECENT INTERVIEW WITH SOUTHERN FICTION WRITER RON YATES—AUTHOR OF BEN STEMPTON’S BOY and MAKE IT RIGHT: A NOVELLA AND EIGHT STORIES.
Q: The protagonist in Ben Stempton’s Boy arrives in rural Georgia from Pittsburgh and much to his surprise is won over by the people and their ways. You did a wonderful job showing the South through the mindset of an outsider…more —enabling readers to experience the unexpected things of the South often overlooked or misunderstood by newcomers. Your story seems to lay these down in layers like blankets on a bed while fluently coaxing the reader to find comfort and warmth in those words. What factors weighed into your ability to do that?
A: Growing up in the South with extended family that included many prolific story tellers and exaggerators contributed to my ability to tell a story, but writing a story isn’t the same as telling one. The difference is where the layers come in. With fiction and creative nonfiction the author works toward immersing the reader in an experience. This involves writing scenes that are built with details upon details, layers if you will. If the layers aren’t carefully chosen and stacked in interlocking ways, the scene won’t work. I learned the importance of sensory details in my high school and undergrad college classes. But I didn’t begin to understand the important role that imagination plays until much later after I’d begun writing Ben Stempton’s Boy. I was reading some of our best literary authors then, among them Joyce Carol Oates and John Updike. I was blown away by the explicitness of the details and the precision of the layering in Oates’ We Were the Mulvaneys and Updike’s Rabbit at Rest and realized that I should try to achieve similar results in my novel. I worked toward that end, learning as I went. In doing this, though, additional problems arose: Where do all those details come from and when do you cross that blurred line between too many and not enough? I continue to struggle with these questions, as I believe all writers worth their salt should. Imagining deeply enough to build a good scene is very difficult. You have to experience it all in your mind in order to immerse the reader into scenes that play like a movie in her head so that she forgets she’s reading. All of the author’s imagined details, though, need not make it into the final drafts. The narrative has to be pushed along, so it becomes (after the initial imagining) a process of deciding what to leave in and what to take out. In the end it’s all a balancing act.
Q: You were born in Georgia, live in Alabama, and your recently published novel Ben Stempton’s Boy has a Southern setting—clearly your work qualifies to be found in the Southern Fiction shelf. There’s a much larger audience for mystery, thriller, and dystopian stories and many writers choose to work in those areas. You haven’t. Why not?
A: I’m not against making money, and I’d love for Ben Stempton’s Boy to sell a million copies. I’m also not opposed to incorporating certain elements of “genre” fiction into my writing. For example in the novel I tried to move the narrative along with action, suspense, a little sex here and there, and cliffhangers at the end of chapters. Good fiction, no matter the genre, should incorporate drama and tension into nearly every scene. I also believe that fiction should be character driven, no matter the genre. Many books in the categories you mention rely more on plot than character. I’m not interested in placing stereotyped characters into elaborate plots that rely on zombies, vampires, spy vs. spy intrigue, or sci-fi dystopian tropes. I’d rather write about real people—in other words explore the human condition, as trite as that sounds. Of course there are plenty of books in the various fiction genres that do this. Many worthwhile examples exist in all the genres that delve into universal themes with complex, believable characters. The lines between genres are often, thankfully, blurred. Just as “literary” fiction incorporates suspense and other page-turning traits, genre fiction can and often does incorporate characters who are waist deep in conflicts that are at least emotionally realistic. So here’s the short answer: I set out to write the kind of novel I’d like to read, and in doing so I relied on situations and characters who were prominent in my world during my coming-of-age years.
Q: The gothic aspect of Southern Fiction is attributed to post-Civil War conditions and emotions below the Mason-Dixon line. Why is it different than cultures found elsewhere in the USA—in the Northeast, the Midwest, and Pacific Northwest for instance? Why are you attracted to it? Why do you and other Southern Fiction writers feel inclined to preserve it rather than whitewash over it? Would the South be better off without reminders of its past?
A: I think all the regions are rife with their own “ghosts” and aberrations. There is a broad American Gothic that encompasses New England’s witches, the Wild West, and everything between. I suspect the South has its own special niche mainly because of the excellent Southern authors who emerged during the twentieth century, Faulkner being at the forefront of a long and distinguished line: Flannery O’Conner, Eudora Welty, Tennessee Williams, Carson McCullers, Truman Capote . . . you and your readers know the names. These authors told wonderful stories about complex, twisted characters in a place that may seem foreign to people from other regions, just as New York seems like another planet to me. As readers we derive voyeuristic pleasure from visiting places that seem odd to us. Southern dialect and expressions are colorful; the rural settings with old barns and dilapidated farm houses and the small towns with the courthouse in the center of the square are simultaneously welcoming and foreboding. There is always some dark force or evil person lurking in the shadows, but this is just the stuff of fiction, no matter the setting. That said, I’ll acknowledge the other major factor in the development of the South’s distinctive fictional proclivities: the Civil War and its aftermath. The region was crushed, and Reconstruction was characterized by a parade of unscrupulous players on all sides. Misdeeds and horrors were swept under the rug. The idea that certain topics should not be discussed became a part of Southern culture. Southerners and the region as a whole are onions with many layers. Our best writers are those who successfully peel them back to reach a core truth about human existence. I write about the South because I understand the mores and eccentricities. It’s easier for me to imagine the scenes because I know how they look, smell, and sound. The Gothic aspect is hard to pin down. It stems from Romanticism and an emphasis on the magical and supernatural. Ben Stempton’s Boy doesn’t deny the supernatural—themes associated with Christianity are woven throughout—but the novel is more accurately an example of gritty realism that happens to be set in the South. I can’t speak for other writers, but in the novel I do try to preserve the particulars of a tumultuous period—as a kind of chronicle—in the history of a place I’m familiar with by doing my best to tell the truth. I have no other agenda, but I believe whitewashing is generally a bad idea.
Q: You’ve said you disapprove of how the South is depicted in books like God’s Little Acre and Tobacco Road. Generally speaking, what rubs you wrong and why? What of the South and her people are most often underappreciated?
A: The characters in Erskine Caldwell’s novels are sensationalized caricatures, grotesque and ignorant beyond credulity for me. I get that he was writing about the horrors of poverty during the depression years, but he didn’t imbue his characters with dignity. For decades society has taught that we shouldn’t stereotype, but it seems that this directive doesn’t apply to rural Southerners. I believe that people in the South are generally as intelligent as folks anywhere else, and they are also sensitive, generous, and compassionate. I resent any depiction of Southerners as more ignorant or backwards than people from other regions. The characters we create should be treated as real humans, worthy of honor and respect until they prove otherwise.
Q: How would you describe the relationship between blacks and whites in the South today? Is it mostly honest or mostly superficial? Should the South’s black-white past be sugar-coated so as not to offend? Why should readers of all races, genders, and ages be interested in Southern fiction authored by Southern white males over the age of sixty?
A: I believe deliberately stepping away from political spin and media narratives is essential for understanding race relations today. The South certainly has a history of discrimination and hatefulness, but much progress has been made toward equality and better relations. As a high school teacher for nearly thirty years I watched this unfold in the classrooms and cafeterias and playing fields. Teens (who are now adults) stopped excluding, broadening their friendship circles to include those with different skin tones. MLK’s dream of judging others on the basis of character instead of skin color was becoming a reality. Hell, I don’t know a single person in my age group (the old folks, as you pointed out in your question) who is a racist, based on the accepted definition of a decade or so ago. Now, though, according to institutions and groups who benefit from keeping us divided, racism is worse than in the sixties, and anyone who denies this is a racist. Morgan Freeman, in his famous Sixty Minutes interview with Mike Wallace, said the way to get rid of racism is to stop talking about it. His explanation was basically a paraphrase of MLK’s Content of Character principle. To stop talking about racism doesn’t mean to sugarcoat it; it’s a way of moving forward instead of perpetuating ill will by wallowing in the misdeeds of the past. Latent racism and discrimination exist, but this is not the most important issue we face as a nation. With the population at over 330,000,000, extremists are easy to find. Media outlets do a disservice by over-reporting on the haters and nut-jobs, making them seem like the norm rather than exceptions. Folks on the streets, in the grocery stores, in the workplace, and all walks of life are friendly and respectful to each other, regardless of color. In the South and elsewhere good deeds cross racial lines everyday. People of color are succeeding all around us. We all witness this, but those of us who are older see shifting social phenomena through a longer lens. Readers of all ages, genders, and ethnicities—if they’re not oblivious to the truth—should be able to benefit from reading older writers from different backgrounds because today’s issues can be better understood through deeper perspectives. Throughout history most cultures have valued and respected their elders. An author’s age, race, or background, though, shouldn’t be the deciding factor in whether or not they are worth reading. The quality of the work should stand on its on.
Q: Which writers have most influenced your work and why? Who are you reading now? Which, if any, trends among readers and publishers are likely to shape your writing career moving forward?
A: I’ve already mentioned Joyce Carol Oates and John Updike. I also include Edith Wharton, Hemingway, ZZ Packer, Richard Yates, Raymond Carver, Elizabeth Strout, and Jamaica Kincaid as major influences. There are many more, but I’ll let this list stand for now. Currently I’m reading Lying, by Lauren Slater, technically a memoir but of a very different sort. This little book is an exercise in deviously pushing against boundaries and having fun doing it, even when the content becomes dark. I read mainly to enjoy quality writing that I can learn from. As far as my work is concerned, current trends often leave me feeling like a fish out of water. All I can do is write the stories that come to me. I had a story published in the summer 2020 issue of The Courtship of Winds that is contemporary and not particularly “Southern” even though it’s set in Birmingham. It’s titled “Celia’s the Driver” and features a young black woman as a main character. I didn’t write this story as an attempt to follow trends. Celia just appeared to me and began to take on life and fictional possibilities. I liked her and built this story around her. It’s a good story. You should check it out!
Q: You pursued an MFA in Creative Writing after you had already gotten going as a writer. What did you learn that surprised you most in terms of the right and wrong approach to the craft? Which lessons in the MFA program are too often overlooked by emerging writers? Did the program suggest any rules that your unique writing voice still chooses to ignore?
A: A good MFA program shouldn’t be about rules or right and wrong but rather what works and doesn’t and why. If there is a rule or dictum, it’s a broad one: Read like a writer and vice versa. In other words, don’t read authors who suck. The bad habits will rub off on you. If you want to write quality fiction, you must read the best writers, those who are currently at a level higher than your own. Many poor writers sell a lot of books. Reading them, though, is like playing tennis with players who are less skilled. It might be fun for a while to kick the shit out of them, but you’ll never grow that way. We should always be stretching up toward a higher level. When reading great writers, we should pay attention to the tricks they use to move through time, to transition from one scene to another, or to make characters come to life. I used the word “tricks” intentionally. Think of them as devices or tools that create and sustain the illusion. It’s all smoke and mirrors, and the tricks can be learned. An MFA program can also, through the rigor and the workshop experiences, be valuable in helping the aspiring author discover her own aesthetic and develop a unique voice. Rules? Made to be broken, once they are fully ingrained and understood alongside of the desired fictional outcome.
Q: In addition to Ben Stempton’s Boy, you’ve had a novella and several short stories published. Tell us about those.
A: Make It Right: A Novella and Eight Stories is exactly what the title says, a fiction collection. The stories, including the titular novella, generally share this theme: Bad choices bring bad outcomes that are sometimes difficult or impossible to rectify. Most of them have a Southern flavor but several could be set elsewhere. They are dark and twisted with Gothic touches, but they are not without hope. The characters are mostly redeemable. I think the reader will also experience a few chuckles through the dark humor. There’s a full description on Amazon, a couple of blurbs, and a bunch of reviews.
Q: What are you currently working on? What themes might continue to influence your future work?
A: I’ve had stories published that aren’t in Make It Right, and I’ve written stories that haven’t found a home yet. I’ve recently been working on a new collection that includes some of these. The working title is Ourselves Again, and the overarching theme centers around missed opportunities and the alienation that results from the passage of time as we stumble through life. Fun stuff! I’m also contemplating a screenplay adapted from the Make It Right novella, and I’ve begun research for a story about the human trafficking and illicit sex trade that stems from our unwillingness to secure the southern border. That’s about it for now. As most writers I have more ideas than time to devote to them!